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The Emerging Scandal Narrative: To Make Obama Pay, GOP Blasts ‘Culture of Intimidation’


Since his emergence as a national political figure, Barack Obama has managed to deflect accusations of wrongdoing and impropriety with ease. Republicans on Capitol Hill are determined to put that to an end by making him pay for the unfolding scandal at the Internal Revenue Service.

“Ultimately responsibility lies with the president. Obama has spent the better part of the last five years doing non-stop campaigning,” says a senior Republican Senate aide who points to the administration’s larger pattern of “using political offices to intimidate and harrass” its opponents. “When bureaucrats see the leader of an organization doing that, it shouldn’t shock us when they start doing the same. That appears to have been what happened here.”

Republican lawmakers, led by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Florida senator Marco Rubio, are now hammering the president for fostering a “culture of intimidation” that encourages the vilification of one’s political opponents. “There is a culture of intimidation throughout the administration,” McConnell told NBC’s David Gregory on Sunday. “It’s no wonder the agents in the IRS sorta get the message. The president demonizes his opponents.” On the Senate floor last week, Rubio too described a “culture of intimidation” and, referring to the IRS’s targeting, argued that the culture “leads to this kind of behavior throughout the administration.” House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp spoke of the same culture his opening statement at Friday’s hearing on the IRS scandal.

The repeated use of the term is no accident. “Mitch McConnell doesn’t say anything without thinking about why he is going to say it,” another senior GOP aide tells National Review Online. “If you hear him talking about a culture of intimidation at the IRS, he’s not just coming up with that on the spot.” This is a theme McConnell has touched on repeatedly during Obama’s tenure, and it is again emerging as Republicans seek to hang the IRS scandal around the president’s neck. 

The president has frequently been called thin-skinned; he is noticeably irked by criticism and it is hard to miss the contempt in which he holds his critics. In press conferences, campaign speeches, and off-the-cuff remarks, he has returned fire. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the billionaire Koch brothers have all been targets. “I can’t remember a president ever singling out individuals the way he does, it’s just unprecedented,” the Senate aide tells me. The manner in which the president has reacted and responded to his critics over the past four years is now being used to substantiate Republicans’ charge that, if the top dog acts like a bully, his underlings are likely to follow suit.

Take Fox News. In June of 2009, the president complained about a “certain cable network” devoted entirely to attacking his administration. Four months later, former White House communications director Anita Dunn in 2009 said of Fox, “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent,” adding, “We don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.” The administration went on to try to exclude Fox from the network pool that covers the White House, making a recent appointee – pay czar Kenneth Feinberg – available for interviews to every network but Fox. When the other networks refused to conduct the interview until Fox was included, the White House relented. But the verbal assault continued, with Obama telling Rolling Stone in 2010 that the network represents a point of view that is “ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world.”

Charles and David Koch have come in for similar treatment. The billionaire brothers, who co-chair the country’s second-largest private company, sit atop a constellation of right-leaning non-profit organizations opposed to the president’s agenda. With administration officials urging reporters to write about “the most insidious power grab of all time,” and the president warning of “groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity who are running millions of dollars of ads against Democratic candidates across the country,” the Koch brothers became the bête noire of the midterm election.

McConnell last year warned that the administration’s actions demonstrated its willingness to use the powers of government to silence American citizens. (He also cited the IRS’s harrassment of tea-party groups as a case in point). The Koch brothers, McConnell said, became household names “not for the tens of thousands of people they employ, not for their generosity to charity,” but because of the administration’s bullying. “If the President of the United States opposed these kinds of tactics, all he’d have to do is condemn them. Instead, he’s joined the effort.” He went on to link the president’s rhetorical war against them to the harrassment and death threats to which they were subjected.

As with Fox News and the Koch brothers, so too, Republicans say, with the Tea Party. “The White House may be keen on this strategy that it was one or two employees at some far off agency, but the president was very clear on strategy that these groups were not to be trusted, and if you’re working at one of these agencies,” argues the Senate aide, “and if you want to see the president get reelected, you want to make it difficult for these organizations to form and flourish.”

Both GOP lawmakers and their staff are careful about lodging accusations about what the president knew about what was happening at the IRS — and when he knew it – saying that the investigations currently underway by both Congress and the inspector general will determine that. But to make the president pay for this scandal, in their view, that may be immaterial.